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The Importance of Downtime for L&D Professionals

🕑 5 minutes read | Jun 27 2022 | By Joseph M Jordan, TTA Learning Consultant
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As businesses transition into the pace of a post-pandemic workplace, many learning and development professionals are finding that pace is faster, frequently changing, and often unpredictable. After two years of virtual workshops and online meetings led from a home-based office, L&D professionals now juggle days in the office, on-site training, virtual sessions, and an increasing number of in-person workshops that require travel. Words like change fees, jet lag, and airport food are again part of the L&D vocabulary.

Learning professionals operate in a world of words. We know it is important to choose the optimum word to get a job done. When we employ the words leisure, recreation, and downtime, we easily toss these terms into one synonymous bag of meaning, while each holds a vastly different implication—and distinct value for us.

Leisure

The word leisure debuted around the 14th century meaning time at one’s disposal, freedom from necessary occupations, or doing something without haste or deliberation. Most professionals see leisure as time remaining after priorities are cared for, after work is done, or when we have “free time.”

The deeper meaning of leisure is found hidden in its French and Latin origins where the root of the word means to “be allowed.” The original intent of leisure is time we allow for ourselves or give ourselves. Leisure is allocated purposefully, deliberately, and even judiciously. Leisure isn’t something we get as a reward for what we’ve accomplished—like a free book for the high achiever in a workshop. Leisure is something we give ourselves as an investment toward what we want to achieve. Making time for leisure recognizes there are always competing priorities with voices much louder than our mind or body’s cry for relief. By engaging in leisure, we choose to ignore Siren’s call for more activity and allow ourselves to pause and engage in other pursuits.

Recreation

We throw the word recreation around like it is indestructible, so it doesn’t require much attention or care. When we learn recreation originally meant to “create again, renew, regenerate,” we smile affirmingly, telling ourselves that’s what we think recreation means, so no big deal. The disconnect comes when we look at what we do in the name of recreation.

The original meaning of recreation included recovery from illness, invigorating, and restoring. For busy learning professionals darting between classrooms, airports, and clients, efforts to re-create can leave us more tired and in worse shape than when we started. While sitting in a stadium consuming beer and bad pizza for three hours may be fun—it misses the mark for recreation. Netflix binging provides an enjoyable, perhaps desperately-needed distraction, but falls far from the goal of recreation. A week of late-night partying at an exclusive resort looks vastly more re-creative on a travel website than the superficial restoration it offers in real-time.

Downtime

Our journey through the jungle of misused words takes on new intensity when we look at the word downtime. A casual dinner with friends, a visit to a museum, reading a good book, or channel-surfing on a Friday night are ways people say they’re getting some “downtime.” Unfortunately, those activities don’t come close to capturing the intent of this important component of a healthy life.

Downtime has its origins in industry and manufacturing, referring to deliberate, planned periods during which a computer system, machine, or assembly line is taken out of action and unavailable for use. Downtime is costly, so like people, businesses don’t allocate predictive maintenance well, costing companies an estimated $50 billion annually. When a piece of technology or equipment is not proactively given downtime, the machine takes it—usually at a very inopportune moment and with a high cost to the business.

Our minds are far more complex and sophisticated than any piece of equipment, and they require deliberate, planned periods of inactivity to operate with optimum health and efficiency. Emerging research indicates the human brain has two important systems that operate together—while remaining distinctly different from one another.

Our Two Brain Networks

The Task Positive Network or TPN is active during attention-demanding activities. This system includes conscious attention toward our external environment, use of our senses, awareness of our internal condition, and the execution of the mental and physical activity. When we are at work, juggling a myriad of responsibilities, engaged in critical thinking and decision making, and implementing our latest talent development plan, the TPN is in full operation, giving us the cognitive skills we need for these executive functions.

The Default Mode Network or DMN becomes engaged when our focus goes inward rather than toward our external world or circumstances. The DMN is linked to our ethical framework, memories, creativity, and how we define our sense of self. The regions of the brain linked to DMN become more active when we are alert, but not focused on or processing information—when we meditate, daydream, envision the future, or recall pleasant memories.

Here is where definitions become life-saving important. Scrolling through the last wave of posts on Facebook or Instagram between Zoom or Teams meetings is not downtime. Three hours of playing video games during a flight delay is not downtime. Posting a new Tic Tok video during lunch is not downtime. These activities all demand attention and while they may be ways to use leisure, they aren’t downtime.

Genuine downtime is like proactive maintenance in a factory. Deliberately choosing to energize memory, creative thinking, and purposeful daydreaming can make a significant contribution to our effectiveness when we again focus the TPN toward cognitively challenging responsibilities. As learning professionals constantly tasked with the need to provide creative and innovative approaches to learning—genuine downtime is vital to our effectiveness.

Bringing Audiences Our Best

To function at full capacity and capability, our bodies need what leisure and recreation provide. To engage with full mental strength and competence, our minds need a purposeful shift from that which demands attention to mental actions that refresh our emotional systems. As L&D professionals, this shift ensures that when we help people identify and practice important behavioral changes, we are acting with the confidence that body and mind are working in full cooperation.

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